9 Naming Lessons From the Front Lines

By Alan Brew

It seems so seductively easy.

And yet, among all the complexities of corporate and brand strategy, naming is the most notoriously difficult.

Over the years BrandingBusiness has developed hundreds of names for clients. Learn from our accomplishments – and our struggles. One of the most important things we have learned is that there is no easy way of finding that one gem of a name that is legally ownable and distinctive in the market. It is hard work.

And it’s becoming increasingly harder by the month.

There are more than two million active trademarks, and 5,000 new applications are filed with the US trademark office each week. At least half do not pass, often because they happen to be merely similar to another name.

The Unexpected Naming Challenge Businesses Face Today

Naming today requires a new level of creativity and ingenuity, especially in the crowded categories of software and technology. The magic is not in the process. Every naming company has a process; it’s simply a structure to facilitate name development. Knowledge of an industry’s naming conventions, the relevant trademark categories and a facility with language are key ingredients.

But the core issue we deal with is the psychology of teams.

Everyone has an opinion about names. Initially, enthusiasm is high. People have favorites and suggestions. As those favorites disappear one by one throughout the process, it gets harder and it becomes more subjective. The magic lies in our ability to guide teams through the emotional highs and lows and the subjective opinions about names. We do this with informed counsel supported with best practices and cases to find that one, ownable name that excites and distinguishes.

Share These Naming Guidelines with Your Team

Here are nine hard-earned lessons from the front lines of naming for 25 years. We pass them on with a large dose of good luck.

1. It’s OK not to like a name.

“Nothing jumps off the page,” “I’m not in love with anything,” “It reminds me of…” – these are typical reactions to new names. That’s normal.

People are uncomfortable with the unfamiliar. Their reference is the world of the familiar and the known. By helping people to talk out their initial reactions, no matter how subjective, the more disposed they will be to consider a name rationally and keep a name with potential alive.

Lesson: Give names a chance. Remove the challenge; give people the freedom to dislike a name.

2. Avoid “like/dislike” votes.

This relates to the first lesson: Once people take a position based on initial gut reaction, it’s hard to change minds.

Rational argument will hold no sway over an entrenched emotional decision. Like/dislike votes are often entirely subjective and lead to the premature death of many a good name candidate. Discuss the name’s potential openly in the context of a clear strategy and the intended audience, not just what they feel about it at that time.

Lesson: You don’t have to like a name for it to be successful.

3. Naming is a process; trust the process.

A new name has to be understood in the context of a strategy and objectives. The journey to a name candidate is often as important as the name itself. Asking people who were not involved in the journey what they think about a name without the benefit of the thinking behind it opens it up to the like/dislike trap.

Lesson: Do not share a name, or a naming presentation, with people who were not present in the briefing meeting. It circumvents the process.

4. A name takes its meaning from what it is attached to.

Consider Google, Xerox and Kodak. They are (largely) meaningless names that, quite literally, became synonymous with a product. Conversely, uber has a specific meaning in the German language, but attached to the ride-sharing company known as Uber, it has assumed an entirely different meaning.

Lesson: A name’s ultimate meaning is the result of ongoing communications and people’s experience with the company or product.

5. A name change will be controversial, so plan for it.

Don’t expect people to fall in love with your new name. There will be reaction. Some people will hate it and say so. And corporate name changes are easy, controversial fodder for news publications and bloggers. Remember, it’s not about the name, it’s about your strategy and what the name represents.

Lesson: Keep control of the story; tell people proactively how to think of the name.

6. Customers care most about continuity of relationships.

Much of the angst over name changes stems from misplaced concern for customer reaction. It is often invoked as a reason not to change. In this world of business flux, customers are used to change; they accept name changes if the reasons are explained. They care most about the continuity of relationships. Their attitude about names is, invariably, “just tell us who you want to be, and be it.”

Lesson: Customers generally accept name changes if they are explained. This provides a great reason to communicate directly with your customers to tell a new story.

7. The story is bigger than the name.

Whether a spin-off, a merger or a rebranding – a name is incidental to the bigger story of the business strategy and the envisioned future of the company or service. Make the story about the future and where you are going, not the name.

Lesson: A name by itself is not a strategy. Focus your story on the strategy.

8. A name is not a brand.

A name, by itself, is just a word. It becomes a brand when invested with meaning with supporting context, positioning, messaging and ongoing communications.

Lesson: A name needs investment to become a brand.

9. Don’t fall in love with a name too soon.

Naming is a rigorous, iterative process of creation, review and screening. Eventually, a handful of candidates are put through intense legal search and luckily, hopefully, one or two will emerge free and clear for final consideration. It’s hard, but avoid having favorites. It leads to disappointment and lack of enthusiasm for the names that survive. Keep an open mind right to the end.

Lesson: Ultimately, the best name is the one you can own.